This year, Austin has seen more traffic deaths than any other year on record, with 92 people having died on the roadways in 2015 so far.
Last November, the Austin City Council commissioned the Vision Zero Task Force to find solutions for the perennial problem of traffic deaths, and Tuesday the task force outlined a draft of its proposals to the Austin City Council.
The task force’s ultimate goal is to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries on Austin roads. It’s a goal that member Francis Riley admitted isn’t one that’s quickly achieved, but has proven effective in other cities that have implemented the plan, which originated in Sweden in 1997. Riley likened the effort to curbs on once-accepted health hazards.
“[Vision Zero] looks at traffic deaths and injuries as a public health problem, and similar to smoking or not wearing a seatbelt,” Riley said. “The answer to it lies in raising awareness, educating people, making changes to our regulation and building safety into our design.”
Riley recommended a continuation of the task force, which had a November deadline to present its proposal to council, and also pushed for increased enforcement, broadening of data sharing between city and county agencies and an increase in media awareness campaigns similar to the city’s “Don’t Block the Box” campaign.
Council Member Ora Houston said it was important to bolster awareness but cautioned that the city should follow up and remain persistent in any campaign to maintain that awareness.
Council Member Don Zimmerman questioned the four-pronged plan, saying he objected to the policy objective because it was based on a “flawed” utopian premise.
“The reality is, transportation is moving people and things from point A to point B. That’s reality. Utopia says ‘I’m going to move people and have transportation with no fatalities.’ It’s false,” Zimmerman said. “When you start out with a false premise of something you’re trying to do, which is impossible to accomplish, that’s going to lead you down a path to a bunch of terrible, unintended consequences.”
Acting Assistant Director of Traffic Management for the Austin Transportation Department Jim Dale admitted the undertaking would be a regional effort and would require involvement and awareness from everyone on the road. He said the Transportation Department has been successful in trying quick fixes – like tweaks in light-timing for protected left turns at problematic intersections and temporary fixes that don’t require extensive overhauls of busy streets – but that the effort, in the short- and long-term, will still likely cause some traffic.
“When we’re increasing safety, in some cases, we may be reducing mobility,” Dale said. “So, there is this somewhat of a balance between the two.”
The Vision Zero Task Force will present again before the city’s Public Safety Committee in January.